Born in Haiti and raised in central Florida, Willie Wayne Smith now lives and works just outside Detroit, in Pontiac MI. Open Book, Thin Air is his first solo exhibition with Library Street Collective.
Smith’s paintings begin with improvisational charcoal drawings, where he creates each composition and story from memory and mind's eye, without using any visual aids or references: “They are immediate and usually complete fictions, but often draw from my own experiences or remind me of those experiences. I often see the figures as surrogates for people I have known… They are both alien and completely familiar.”
The images are those of working-class extended families, sharing spaces and circumstances that the wealthy American family has the luxury of keeping expansive, tidy and private. While close quarters inspire plenty of fond memories, a crowded home can also engender more advanced experiences and family dramas than the average developing mind is privy to. Smith’s works present everything from barrel burnings at a child’s birthday party and awkward sexual encounters; to a funeral balloon release and a hallucination involving a sea creature and a handful of pills. Littered throughout are beer bottles, crutches, crosses, pickup trucks, knives and family pets.
The idea of the unfinished coloring book page also allows conceptual and physical space for other artistic elements - realistic yet hazy airbrush renderings and stream-of-consciousness notes scribbled and bending along the border of the page. These images are intended to expand the meaning of the scene indirectly in a manner that is poetic rather than conclusive, painted from google image searches, iPhone photos, or invented to resemble photo-based painting. The atomized airbrush spray is foggy and speaks clearly to fading memory and temporality, reminding Smith of state fairs, custom car shows, and Americana. All have positive, yet complicated connotations for him.
“These images are sometimes taken directly from my own life - my dog or her chew toy, my little sister’s portrait (in Diva and the Swan), or a mugshot of my older brother that I found online (Still Life). It’s interesting to me how an image has its specific/personal and general/political meanings.”
Though sometimes illegible or hidden by layers of linework, the notes in Smith’s handwriting develop in much the same way as the figures: derived directly from thinking about and responding to the images. “At its best, I’d like (the text) to create the kind of heartfelt, fleeting and infinitely interpretable meaning as the abstract lyrics in an otherwise specific song. I force myself to write my immediate thoughts, which is therapeutic, enlightening, and embarrassing for me. I hope that some essence of vulnerability, spontaneity, and unease translates.”
New to Willie’s body of work, Open Book, Thin Air will present sculptural works that are “lovingly vandalized monuments to fictional characters” and a series of hand-embellished prints releasing through Louis Buhl and Co.
Open Book, Thin Air will be on display from February 3 with an opening reception from 6-8PM, and will run until March 24.